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Friday, 31 May 2013

Writing can form the basis of an engaged old age

This is a picture of my mother and father, in the 50s, dancing together, before I was born. She was beautiful, my mother, and gregarious. Her thing was the New Theatre, a left-of-centre acting troupe active in Melbourne at the time. Because her father was a Communist, my mother was involved in left-of-centre activities throughout her childhood but her priorities changed when her brother Geoff one day brought home, to visit, a young man he'd met at university, where the two men studied engineering. I assume this photo was taken after my mother and father married in 1955, the year after her father Harry died. If so, it can stand as an emblem of a happy marriage. So let's zip through time - two children, both boys, my mother working in her gift shop, first in Melbourne then in Sydney, her husband's career, cooking meals (faster, faster) and making a household a going concern, my father's retirement, travel, relocation to Queensland, my father's dementia, his death, and then living in old age herself - to the present, where I care for my mother and make sure her household runs smoothly. Whew!

It's a surreal diaorama when you think about it. How does a healthy young woman in her 20s segue with such extraordinary speed to become a frail old woman in her 80s, with various complaints, and who lives alone since her partner of almost 60 years has gone from this world? And what does that woman do who used to be so gregarious - theatre friends, dating her future husband, children's school activities, running a shop and dealing with customers and suppliers, travelling and meeting new people overseas - once the mechanical realities of old age work to confine her largely to a single location - her apartment - even though what she enjoys more than anything is a good chat?

I think that isolation is a big problem for the elderly and so when I look at the entirety of my mother's situation I tend to file away the images in my mind to use to inform how my own old age might look. The matter of the internet is worth mentioning. My father's work in the automation industry early brought him into contact with digital networks, so he knew about the internet, but his thinking motivated him to reject it. He feared that someone might hack into his files and never got a modem installed. He was also suspicious of the ways the internet was being used, and distrusted the kinds of content that it delivered in its early years. So my parents never had the internet in their retirement. As a result my mother never learned how to use it. She had a computer from the 90s to do word processing but changes in the standard GUI since that time have meant that she is unfamiliar with new models and operating systems. I have tried to teach her how to turn on and use her computer but I gave it up because we made no progress. The upshot is that my mother is denied access to the internet at a time in her life when it could provide her with the kinds of social interaction that she wants.

After my father died, just over two years ago, my mother experienced some depression stemming from grief. I saw first-hand how this works. A reluctance to get out of bed in the morning. A feeling of confusion and a lack of focus, poor motivation, a tendency to take naps. My mother then took off on a project to populate her walls with photographs of people from her youth; there are dozens of black-and-white portraits and colour photos showing individuals and groups of people. Her walls form a visual record of the past, displaying people she remembers and reminding her, now, during the routine of her daily life, of their stories. What they represent in her scheme of things. It's like a private family museum where she can think and remember a world that has almost completely disappeared from the real world that actually surrounds her.

My mother is almost the last of her generation. The rest are gone apart from a few people living in other cities. The first to go was my father's sister: dead from dementia. Then my mother's brother: dead from dementia. Then my father: dead from dementia. After all these deaths my mother survives and I want her to write about the past as my father did, after his retirement. In those 15 or so years as they traveled from place to place my father worked regularly on his memoir, always using my mother's superior spelling and grammatical knowledge to help polish it to a higher standard. As my mother cooked and cleaned and did the shopping my father worked on his laptop, eventually writing about 150 single-spaced A4 pages of his personal story. It extends to about the time we boys were born, then stops mid-sentence as if the effort required to conjure up images simply overcame his powers one day and after that failure he lost interest. In any case there can be no more A4 pages added to it now. The powers that are left to my mother however are not being used because of unfamiliarity with computers. And so all the stories that reside in memories connected to the photographs lining her walls will one day disappear and leave no trace in the world.

And there's nothing I can do about it. But these dilemmas suggest ways of doing old age that might apply in my own case. Coping with isolation is of course also a problem for me but internet technologies let me engage with the broader public sphere with an ease denied to earlier generations. Doing old age is also something that everyone - or at least those who are lucky enough to do so - will confront sooner or later. Because my mother's situation is personal for me it can serve as a guide to how I might do old age (if I arrive there at all). It can inform anyone's experience of old age, in fact. I think that to cope with old age it is important to have skills that enable you to engage broadly with others, and in the internet age the primary skill is literacy. Writing is also something that can realistically be performed even in old age, a time when physical constraints limit the options for everyone who experiences it. I think writing can, in many ways, form the basis of an engaged old age.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

A "low-carbon, city-chic, frankly muscular, sassy but not vulgar" Aussie car?

The battle of the big Aussie sixes continues, despite the fact that Ford announced just under a week ago that the Falcon would not be manufactured after 2016. The day before that announcement there was a story in the Australian about the new VF Commodore. Holden spruiked the car's set of additions including rear parking sensors and a blind-spot warning sensor. A couple of days ago there was a clandestine photo in one of the broadsheets of Ford's might-be replacement for the Falcon. Today there's a story about Holden's proving track near Melbourne. This on-going story is background noise for Australian men, and it begs the question: if these models are made for Aussie men, and they're not selling, it must mean Aussie women are making the decisions about what car to buy for the family.

So it's timely that Elizabeth Farrelly, one Fairfax columnist, has written about her effort to choose a new car for herself. Apart from shrewdly noting that all the people on the saleyard flat are blokes - where are all the women car salespeople? - Farrelly outlines the kinds of attributes she wants in a car.
Sensible be damned. I want a snappy bod, an eager drive, a flattering interior, an edible acoustic. I want it low-carbon, city-chic, frankly muscular, sassy but not vulgar, with an opening roof and a hint of Rilke or Eames. I want it affordable. Oh, and yes, did I mention that? I want it to go. Is that so hard?
But there's more.
The reason I need a car at all - at least my rationale - is I'm planning some country trips, and this is not a continent to do by public transport. So I want a car that can shoulder the load and foot it with the kelpies, as well as zip around the Hood.
She plans road trips and plumps for a VW Tiguan, which comes in a range of models including a 1.4-litre 118kW petrol engine, a  2.0-litre 103kW diesel engine, a 2.0-litre 132kW petrol engine, and a 2.0-litre 155kW petrol engine.

(The number of litres shown for an engine refers to the displacement; the amount of air-fuel mix that is moved with each up-down action of the total of the cylinders. Displacement correlates with the fuel-efficiency of the engine; a smaller displacement will - all other things being equal - use less fuel. The abbreviation "kW" stands for "kilowatt", and indicates the amount of energy, or power, that the engine can produce. A wise buyer will want the smallest possible displacement for the energy rating required.)

If I were Farrelly, given her list of "wants", I'd be going for one of the more powerful petrol Tiguan models. Because when you're intending to overtake a couple of slow semi-trailers on an uphill curve in the rain with a side-wind gusting to 30 knots you want something that can do it easily and without puffing. Of course, a seasoned country-road driver might prefer the 3.0-litre 185kW unit in the new VF Commodore or else the 3.5-litre 200kW unit in the Toyota Aurion. There's a world of difference in terms of performance (what blokes routinely call "grunt") between a 2.0-litre engine and a 3.0-litre one.

But are these big Aussie sixes "low-carbon, city-chic, frankly muscular, sassy but not vulgar"? Well, they're not low-carbon compared to smaller-displacement models but they're a lot more low-carbon than similar models manufactured, say, 10 years ago. Yes, they're muscular, but aren't they a bit vulgar too? Are they city-chic? Holden continues to place vehicles in super-car competitions, so going for the bogan petrol-head demographic. Which is frankly vulgar (sorry, chaps) rather than sassy. Middle Australia doesn't give a toss about those races, and wants a reliable car with good resale value; women like Farrelly also want a whole slew of other things as well, as we can see.

I sense that Holden cannot shrug off the cashed up bogan rep that currently hangs heavily on the Commodore. Unless it does, it'll never shift enough of the VF to counter the slide the brand has experienced in the past decade as Japanese automakers continue to gain market share.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

There are better things for Bill Gates to spend his money and time on

Joseph Lyons (pic) was Australia's prime minister in 1938, the year, as it happens, of the Anschluss - when Hitler declared unification of Austria with Nazi Germany. Lyons is the only Aussie PM to hail from Tasmania. The king at the time was George VI (the 2010 movie The King's Speech is about him) who had come to the throne because his brother, Edward, had decided to run off and marry an American, Wallis Simpson. 1938 was also the year when the last case of smallpox was recorded in Australia. Smallpox appeared for the last time in 1977, in Somalia.

What's this all got to do with Bill Gates? Well, Gates has been in the news here since his visit to meet with the prime minister, Julia Gillard, in Canberra yesterday. Gates is using his foundation to work to eradicate polio, and he spoke about how Australia can spend more on overseas aid.
''Australia has the lowest debt, or close to the lowest, of any rich country," [Gates said,] "and the lowest deficit of any country I can think of. This country has more connections through trade with developing countries than any other country on the planet. The idea that you can take 0.5 per cent [of gross national income] for the world's poorest seems quite reasonable.''
There is a lot of support online for Bill Gates because of his philanthropy but I think that he is wasting his time and money. That's not to say that the eradication of polio - which is largely confined to three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan - should not be a priority. It should be; there is no point in tolerating the suffering of people from preventable disease in any country. But as the case of Australia illustrates with regard to smallpox, there is no reason why those countries cannot do the job themselves, given the right circumstances. Which gets me to my point.

What Bill Gates should be doing with his money is working to strengthen governance in countries in the world where diseases such as polio continue to exist. Polio is not the problem but rather is merely a symptom of other, larger, problems. Polio is spread not only through human-to-human contact but also through contact with the faeces of an infected person, meaning that it is likely to spread where sanitation is poor. Poor sanitation is a problem of government, because such services are usually publicly-funded. But in many countries the quality of government means that construction of sanitation does not keep up with population growth, especially in cities where large numbers of poor people congregate, living in substandard conditions. While polio can be tamed by immunising children it is more important to ensure that all residents in affected countries are provided with good sanitation as this will help to remove other health threats at the same time, and contribute substantially to quality-of-life.

Poor sanitation is in most cases also a symptom: of the larger problem of poor governance. The most deleterious disease in developing countries like Pakistan and Nigeria is official corruption. Not only does it prevent good sanitation facilities from being constructed because money is stolen for personal gain, it also accelerates the spread of radical ideas that form the basis for civil conflict, exacerbating the problem of provision of essential services such as good sanitation. When a government is spending all its time and money fighting religious radicals it is less able to spend do what it is supposed to do.

In 1938 when smallpox last appeared in Australia the country had been a sovereign nation for 37 years, and was notably free of corruption. It had a strong civil society, solid institutions, and an educated electorate that was served by a free and public education system. Under such conditions it was possible to eradicate smallpox, a terrible disease. Polio continued to appear in epidemics even through the 1950s until the polio vaccine invented by the American researcher Jonas Salk appeared in the middle of that decade. And the case of Salk is also relevant because he grew up also in a country with strong civil society, largely free of corruption, and benefited from a competent education system.

If Bill Gates wants to really make an impact on countries where diseases like polio are still prevalent he should be trying to strengthen governance, improve public education (especially of girls), eradicate corruption, support a free and independent media, and buttress civil institutions there. These are the real building blocks of disease-free cities, and in addition to working against common and preventable diseases they can also work to promote many other benefits, such as respect for human rights (especially of women), tolerance of difference, and the loss of the appeal of radical ideas. If Bill Gates wants Pakistan or Nigeria to become like Australia, these are the things he should be trying to fix because they are at the root of the symptoms he is currently spending his time, money and energy to remove.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

We need not uncritically choose between US and China

Not having to choose means not having to say you're sorry. Or something like that. For seasoned defence wonk Hugh White, saying you don't have to choose contains a moral failing, as he outlines in his column today in the Age. White is evidently irritated by Australian politicians saying that Australia does not have to choose between the US and China, in the strategic sense of the phrase. In terms of military alliances and allegiances. In fact, White seems to be very cross indeed. Our politicians may say NOW that we don't have to choose, he says, but what they say IN THE FUTURE will be something they have no control over.
Whether in future we will face a choice between America and China depends absolutely on how their relationship with one another develops. The decision will not be ours, but theirs. If either of them decide that we have to make a choice, then we do. The better they get along, the less we will be forced to choose. The more they see themselves as rivals, the starker our choices will be.
To illustrate his case, White draws on historical precedent, pointing to Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972, after which Australia's relations with China, says White, changed. "It was the deal between Nixon and Mao, and the US-China relationship that flowed from it, that changed [Australia's uncritical military support for the US in southeast Asia]," says White, "and has saved us from making choices for the past 40 years." But White forgets, perhaps, that Gough Whitlam visited China in 1971 while in Opposition, and met with Chinese leaders there. As soon as he entered office, and even before he had assembled his cabinet, Whitlam not only normalised diplomatic relations with China, and relinquished those with Taiwan, but he also withdrew all remaining troops from Vietnam. These moves demonstrate how it's possible to avoid an uncritical stance vis-a-vis the China-US nexus by sticking to principle and making bold moves.

I can certainly understand how White, who spends all of his time studying strategic problems, would become agitated by the uncritical pronouncements of politicians looking to generate support among the electorate. If "John Howard said recently it was 'infantile' even to discuss the idea that we might have to choose" it becomes clearer why White would complain; Howard always irritates me when he opens his mouth! But just as China decided, early on, to find its own way and "to manage to cross the river by feeling the stones" as their beloved former president Deng Xiaoping once said, Australia does not have to show its hand in a desperate rush, and neither does it have to allow its hand to be shown due to forces outside it. There are different ways to engage with both the US and China - ways that depend on sticking to principle - that can obviate the need to uncritically kow-tow to the preferred hegemon, in any given situation.

In fact, I'm not really sure why White continues to write pieces like the one he published today; it's not the first time he has spoken out to demand a commitment one way or the other. He seems to think this is useful. Well, it can be if it spurs reasoned debate. But it's worthwhile remembering that Australia does have policy instruments in place that will serve to steer future political decisions, such as the ANZUS treaty. Not all countries uncritically follow hegemons in all cases and at all times. Look at New Zealand, for example. Australia is unique in having fought alongside the US in all wars that it has participated in since WWI, and there's no reason why this has to continue.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Book review: Levels of Life, Julian Barnes (2013)

I guess you can't be good at everything, which is something that this book, a triptych, seems to prove, because clearly Barnes fails when it comes to dealing with his wife's death. He hadn't properly prepared himself during his life for such a cataclysmic event, it's clear. His cogitations on grief are in the third part of the book and they're as dry, angered and unstructured as the appalling 2011 book by Joan Didion, Blue Nights, about the death of her daughter. This chapter of Barnes' odd book start with acid and ends with a flump, with the word "France" suggesting - only to the observant reader, of course - that they should refer to the earlier parts of the book for information about how he feels about his apparently beloved wife.

The first part, on ballooning, starts out like a Wikipedia entry it is so dry and factual. It gets better, though, when Barnes begins to talk about the moral, aesthetic and philosophical connotations of human flight, from which he segues to a portrait of an early aeronaut and photographer named Felix Tournachon (who also went by the professional name of Nadar). Nadar was, like Barnes, uxorious. Barnes celebrates the way the man's enthusiasms resulted in new ways of seeing humanity: photographs taken from a balloon give us a view of ourselves that is otherwise simply unavailable. But none of the observant niceness involved in creating this portrait of this odd man survives once Barnes starts talking about his own problems.

The second part of the book is a piece of historical fiction recounting a romance between the famous English actress Sarah Bernhardt and a solider named Fred Burnaby, who was also a balloonist. The gallant and self-consciously bohemian Burnaby captivates the actress temporarily, but when she calls it off he takes it badly. The measure of his foolishness is betrayed in the fact that he cannot bring himself to consider himself her friend, and not a lover, once the penny drops. He marries someone else. She stays the same. It has to be asked if Barnes desires to level at himself the same charge of foolishness that Burnaby invites. Probably not.

This is a small and strange book. It is thankfully short, although the Burnaby chapter dragged on a bit long for me. Barnes probably needn't have bothered with this volume at all. He no doubt considers his relationship with his wife a private matter, not for public eyes. Instead of telling us about her he has parsimoniously stolen the march on our curiosity, opted to wallow in authorial vanity - "Who the hell do you think you are asking impertinent questions about my wife?" - and merely indulged in a quantity of public complaint in addition to an amount of intensive study about the age of steampunk aeronautics. I, for one, do not need to know anything more about ballooning!

Friday, 24 May 2013

Book review: Wild Bill Donovan, Douglas Waller (2011)

If WWII was too long for some it was certainly too long for me in this book; I got to page 227 in this 466 page biography which took me to the point just prior to the famous 1945 meeting of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta. General William Donovan's Office of Strategic Services (OSS) - the forerunner of today's CIA - was born during the war in collaboration with the British foreign secret services and against the objections of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI (which itself came into existence during WWI), and so Donovan travelled a lot during those years of combat to visit OSS stations dotted around the globe and to meet with politicians and spy chiefs in many countries. The OSS practiced intelligence gathering, propaganda, subversion and infiltration of foreign agencies. Donovan was a hands-on manager.

But the reason I stopped reading is because I got tired of not being told things. Douglas Waller apparently spent six years covering the CIA in the US, so presumably he knows many things of public interest, but something stops him from revealing too much. The same problem plagues academic Christopher Andrew's history of MI5 (Defend the Realm, 2009). Waller's acknowledgements note that he did talk with the CIA's historian when asking questions. He relied on previously-published biographies, "OSS records that have been declassified since these three books were published," as well as records stored in several US archives. Clearly, Waller's book is a better reconstruction than what had appeared before about the romantic, dashing and charismatic Donovan. But it is troubling that specific details about OSS activities continue to be classified, especially those relevant to WWII. You would think that by now there should be no fear of disclosing any information that could jeopardise the safety of people living.

In his acknowledgements, Waller does address this failing in his book. "I must caution that this biography could not hope to recount every operation Donovan's agency launched during the war; to do them all justice would take up another book," Waller writes. My suggestion to Waller or any other historian with the background knowledge and inclination to do so, is to in fact write that book. Pressure must be put on the secret state to disclose details of operations that were conducted in the not-so-distant past.

Stylistically, Waller's book is a great improvement on Andrew's. Because he has worked as a journalist, Waller understands the limits of people's concentration spans. His chapters are short and themed, and usually start with a sprinkling of drama: on this day at this time this person was doing this thing. The reliance on individual people and their incorporation into the stories as characters is a relief when the method is compared to the completely unstructured - and exhausting - narrative style found in Andrew's book. Oxbridge dons do not need to concern themselves with readability as the only people who read their material are scholars with ways of thinking similar to their own. A journalist is always going to do a better job at maintaining reader interest. And I suspect that Waller actually cared whether his book would sell in volume; the way Andrew's book is written any thought of saleability seems to have been abandoned early on.

Donovan's story is inherently interesting in any case. Born to a family with meagre means in the city of Buffalo, in New York State, Donovan attended university in New York City, married into wealth, and promptly joined the Army with the intention of serving in Europe in WWI. Which he did, earning honours for bravery. A lawyer, Donovan resumed legal practice on his return to civilian life and was also recruited to public office. Donovan kept a high profile in the state and so when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour he was well-placed to gain preferment for other official duties. Donovan cultivated ties with the British and with President Roosevelt and so was chosen to head a new spy agency. A physically active and intelligent man, Donovan oversaw a rapid expansion of the OSS during the war to a point where it employed many thousands of people.

Woolwich killing not terrorism, just a revenge murder

The global media has gone into meltdown over the killing of an off-duty soldier at Woolwich in London, labelling the event "terrorism" on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. It's obviously worse in the UK; it hardly warrants looking at the headlines coming out of Fleet Street except perhaps for those of the Guardian, which ran part of the videoed jihadist killer's message in one of its stories:
"We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
"We must fight them. I apologise that women had to witness this today. But in our land, our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don't care about you. 
"You think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start bussin' our guns? You think politicians are going to die? No it's going to be the average guy, like you, and your children. So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back so you can all live in peace."
In Australia, the government-funded ABC ran a story sourced largely from overseas sources, mainly British, which labelled this address an "Islamist tirade" in an effort to delegitimise the claims of the man, who appears to me to have been quite lucid and rational during the verbal outburst. Clearly, he was excited; it's not every day that you kill another human being. In the US, the New York Times girded itself with righteous indignation in solidarity with America's limey cousins: 'Cameron Says Britain ‘Resolute’ After Attack'. Oh dear.

So far there has been no rational appraisal of what the man has said publicly as justification of his actions, and this is very troubling. It's so much more troubling in that the media - which is supposed to be objective - has just leapt on the bandwagon carrying government spin. Britain's government, like Australia's and America's, is given a free pass, and has avoided the unpleasant question of what the troops they command are actually doing in Afghanistan - let alone the complete debacle of Iraq, where so many other innocent people died as a result of lies perpetrated by the governments of the global North (aided by the New York Times). These questions are just not being asked of David Cameron, for example, who has metaphorically strapped on a bronze breastplate like Elizabeth I in Essex in the hours before the arrival of the Spanish Armada. Cameron might have the stomach of a king but the man with the meat cleaver has no appetite for more killing in Muslim countries by occupying forces deployed illegitimately.

Afghanistan is a completely unwinnable war partly because the Islamic sense of personal identity means that enthusiastic believers from all around the world are just being sucked into the conflict as part of a personal jihad against what they legitimately see as oppression. There is no longer any justification for troops commanded by governments of the global North to be in Afghanistan; special forces could have been deployed in the early days - the CIA and the military buggered up the hunt for bin Laden after 11 September 2001 by waiting too long to react on intelligence - and then extracted in a timely fashion. Instead, the US decided to penalise an entire country for the sins of a few fanatics, sending tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan - and Britain and Australia supinely followed - with the aim of military occupation.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

All of a sudden I'm excited about Dan Brown

News websites are cluttered with material about Dan Brown's new novel, Inferno, and it's impossible to avoid it. At my local bookseller the shelves literally groan with the hardcover books. And unlike earlier novels from this author I'm very tempted. In fact, it's only a matter of time. How could it be otherwise? Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321) is part of my personal history in a way that, for example, Shakepeare might be for someone who studied English literature at university. This portrait, for example. It's by Sandro Botticelli and was made a couple of hundred years after its subject died. Then think of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 - 1400) and his Canterbury Tales and, indeed, think of John Milton (1608 - 1674) and his two long poems. And later, in the 19th century, witness the explosion of Dantesque cultural goods including new translations, paintings and bibs and bobs. The shadow of Dante doesn't just enliven the sphere of Italian literature, it falls broadly across the entire cultural landscape of Europe. And what he did, when you get down to it, was merely to write poetry in the vernacular, instead of in Latin.

Without question I have forgotten more about Dante than I can remember. It was 1981 when I first came across him because his Commedia was part of the curriculum. It's really an extended allegory, and it starts in a way familiar to those who have read other works from the Middle Ages: a man is walking and gets lost in the woods and meets someone as if in a dream. In Dante's case it's the Roman poet Virgil, who takes the Florentine into Hell, up through Purgatory and into Paradise. But medieval literature is full of poets falling asleep and dreaming allegories. It was quite the thing to do, apparently.

Stylistically Dante's long poem is interesting because of the way he uses his native Florentine dialect - the form of Italian that would eventually become the standard form of the language for the "country" (more recently, it became a real country) - in a way that had not been done before. It's also interesting because of the level of realism involved; when Dante, in Hell, for example, meets a person he'd known of in the real world it's as though that person is really speaking. And the prosodic links between the scene viewed or the speaker being listened to, and the words used to convey that information, are sophisticated and charming. In other words, Dante is a poet in full command of his tools. Uncounted generations of strong readers have swooned when they have read Dante in the original Italian.

So good on Dan Brown for taking on such a complex and monumental subject for his most recent book. It's one I will be buying and reading. Whether I finish it or not depends on Mr Brown's skill.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Australian Christian Lobby is obtuse and wilfully blind

News that former PM Kevin Rudd has changed his views on marriage equality provoked the sensitive petals of the Australian Christian Lobby to invoke the Stolen Generation in an effort to attack him, but finance minister Penny Wong has rebutted the outrageous slur. Wong called a spade a spade: the ACL's take on gay marriage has no place in modern Australia.

Christians often rely for their outdated opinions about homosexuality on words written by one of the flunkies of dead philosopher Jesus of Nazareth, a man named Paul of Tarsus. Paul's contribution to the Bible is well-known. But it's hard to think of the Bible as anything more than a miscellany of popular quotes.

The way it's marketed these days, it is a monolithic set of instructions. But it was actually written over millennia up to about 100 AD, at different times by different people - God knows where all those old stories come from - most of whom probably had tenuous links to the Christian prophet, and whose ideas can hardly be given any more credence than those contained in a novel by Dan Brown, as to such things as conduct, ethics or morality. The popular book, which many Christians allow forms a central part of their identity, was of course one of the first texts to be regularised and retranslated - from ancient Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew, languages noone except experts could understand at the time - in the run-up to the historical period we call the Renaissance. Broader access to the written text in the vernacular Bible combined with higher levels of literacy in Europe in the 16th century - a political step aimed at enabling everyman to read his Bible - were the primary cause of political, artistic and technological changes in Europe that resulted in the continent's global dominance of trade, and in vast improvements in the standards of living of ordinary people living there. A plethora of publications also stimulated debate - often centred on precepts contained in the Bible, commentaries on which remained the most popular type of publication throughout the ensuing period even up until the period of revolutionary politics at the end of the 18th century and beyond - debate that helped maintain our slow progress toward the universal recognition of individuals' rights. And thank God for that.

The question has to be asked whether people in the Australian Christian Lobby are aware of the contribution to the extension of the electoral franchise universally to all adults, for example, that was made by ideas contained in the Bible. In the early 19th century Christians led the push to outlaw slavery on the premise that all people are created equal under God. It defies reason to alienate such hankerings from today's debates about marriage equality, and suggests that the Australian Christian Lobby is merely being selective and obtuse, in fact performing a kind of irrational discrimination that singles out gays and lesbians as if they were not, in fact, people like themselves but members of an entirely different species.

The obtuseness doesn't stop there however. Christians are also often very active in promoting wellbeing overseas, but seem to be quite happy that in some countries homosexuality is still illegal, and carries with it penalties - such as death and stoning - that would be completely unacceptable even for the most bigoted hardliner in a country like Australia. Yet the Australian Christian Lobby wants us to believe that they have the best interests of those in mind whose only fault was to be born in a country where their legitimate sexual preference is not only stigmatised but outlawed. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. How can a devout Christian who takes to heart the messages of peace and fellowship that are embodied in the Bible support laws, in Australia, that leaders in other countries point to as they go about jailing and murdering homosexuals?

The obtuse blindness of people in the Australian Christian Lobby and those who support it is not only distressing, it is also completely infuriating. When will these people stop bullying an innocent minority and accept that their God wishes all good things to all people?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

We should better understand China's history of relations with the West

The most recent piece of psyops from China in its cold war against Japan over the Senkaku Islands concerns Okinawa, which a couple of Chinese academics say are not part of Japan; this has led to some reflections by Fairfax's Peter Hartcher, who reminds us that when Hu Jintao, the previous president of China, visited Australia's Parliament, he spoke words about China's ancient links with our continent dating back to 1420 when a Ming fleet sailed the ocean blue and visited many parts of the globe. It was a short-lived and unrepeated exercise, an outward-looking venture that would not survive China's internal realpolitik and its view of itself in the world, so that when a British nobleman, Earl Macartney, in 1793 embarked on an embassy to Peking to treat with the Qing emperor Qianlong and request the opening of China's northern ports to British trade, he would be rebuffed. (The portrait that accompanies this post was made during Macartney's embassy.)

China's rejection of global capital except in a strictly limited way lasted until 1842 when there was armed conflict and subsequently the cession of Hong Kong to the British as well as Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo, Fuchow, and Amoy. More armed conflict ensued 14 years later and this led to foreign embassies being allowed in the capital, Tianjin being made a trade port, and Kowloon being ceded to Britain.

Hartcher's piece today is a ripe piece of scare-mongering but it must also lead to thoughts about the nature of dialog between the Middle Kingdom and the West (I use these terms merely in order to highlight the usefulness of learning more about east-west relations over the longer period, and not just relying on current events to help form our views about China).

But what can China learn from its history? In Japan, the effort to remain inviolate in the face of global capital led to armed conflict as well, with the showdown finally ending in 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry of the US. The case of Japan is salutary, since it didn't take long from Perry's military exercise until 1868 and the restoration of imperial rule under Emperor Meiji; that's just 15 years in case maths is not your long suit. From 1868 to 1905 is another 37 years: that's when Japan defeated Russia in war (the war that eventually sparked the 1917 Soviet revolution).

So in just over half-a-century, Japan went from feudal backwardness to colonial power. Tokyo's mandarins took this as a cue and proceeded to work to dominate Asia for the next 40 years until they were reminded of the importance of playing nice by the dropping of Little Boy on the city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, followed by Fat Man over Nagasaki on 9 August. Japan took 92 years to reach the establishment - in both instances under duress imposed by the US - of democracy, and since then it's done very well for itself thank you very much. It also made a lot of enemies; unlike the British, who only wanted market access (this applies in India as well, at least in the early stages of the game; for the bulk of the time actually), Japan sought to impose its culture, language and politics on the subject demos. Japan's problem with its claim on the Senkakus date from this period of political adjustment: those 92 years of working out how it should fit into the world. China has a long memory.

For its part, China's problems with the British in 1794 (it took about a year for Macartney's embassy to reach its destination) and all through the bulk of the 19th century also have to do with its view of itself in the world. Likewise the problems China has with pronouncements today by leaders in foreign governments (notably, at least most vocally, the US government) that it believes impinge on its sovereignty, have to do with its view of itself. While in the past this kind of emblematic dysfunction led to armed conflict, these days it generally takes the form of public utterances and propaganda, along with the deployment of military assets in various parts of the high seas near the Chinese coastline.

I think what history tells us is that broader and deeper understanding is necessary for all parties in the game. It's also salutary to remind oneself that it's only been 24 years since China opened up to global capital; as in Japan's case, China has done very well for itself as a result, thank you very much. But we should all look back and contemplate how north Asia has fared in the face of global capitalism, if not since the Renaissance, when the process of rapprochement really started in earnest, then at least since the 18th century. It's not enough to look at the conflicts on Chinese soil. You also have to look at how global capital operated within the British political system: specifically inside Parliament in London. And so the Macartney embassy can form a very useful point of reference for those who would like to better understand the way that China has traditionally viewed itself as a sovereign entity. Likewise, Chinese people can study the 18th century in Britain in order to understand how capital operated on the democratic polis. This kind of mutual regard can only be useful in the longer term.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Book review: Easy Money, Jens Lapidus (2011)

Published in Swedish originally in 2000, this book is a bit different from other cold-climate crime thrillers in that the author is a lawyer, which probably accounts for the lag between its original issue and this excellent translation: there was no ready market for it. But it also accounts for how realistic the characters and the plotting seem to be. There are three main characters: a young student, JW, aspires to fit in with the slick, high-living brat pack and sees dealing in cocaine as his "in" to material success; a drug dealer, Jorge, who is originally from Chile, wants revenge on the men who beat him up after his escape from prison; and Mrado, a brutal stand-over man from Serbia, wants more access to the daughter from his failed marriage.

These men personify intellectual and cultural poverty. Their quotidian resorts are either the local gym, porn, or drugs. There are few books on the shelves in their homes and when they talk about things like design or art it is in reference to clothes or cars. In this impoverished world of money, expensive cars, high fashion, one-night stands, brutalising prostitution and wads of dirty cash the three men thrive and plot their revenges and their dreams. An added complication is that JW's sister Camilla, who had moved to Stockholm some years earlier from the country village their family lived in, disappeared in mysterious circumstances. The police failed to discover what happened to her. Eager to discover this, JW does some amateur sleuthing on the side. JW also pairs up with a local beauty, Sophie, who makes the odd appearance; despite her routine preference from blow, Sophie adds a touch of humanity to this cold and unpleasant world, but the secrets in JW's world have a chilling effect on their relationship.

The action takes place largely set in the tony parts of Stockholm, a city that acts as a magnet for the people who inhabit the book. Stockholm promises quick wealth. The book is full of the dynamics of change: the "Yugo mafia" made up of men who had immigrated to Sweden following the end of hostilities in their homeland that had been sparked by the dissolution of Soviet hegemony; Jorge part of a global South American diaspora; and JW part of the internal Swedish migratory influx to the big city from the countryside. Change is also an idea inherent in the book's main theme: money. How to get it, how to keep it, how to launder it, how to enjoy it (or, more accurately, how to spend it).

Despite his tiresome penchant for the same kinds of vapid diversions as the book's less attractive characters, JW adds some lightness to things. His scheme to launder money through front companies backed by companies he sets up in the Isle of Man has an intelligence about it that both appeals to the other men he associates with, and sits outside their orbit because it represents a knowingness their lack of education denies them. If we care about any of these characters, it is JW who qualifies for our regard; Jorge is just a common criminal and Mrado is an ugly thug. Nevertheless, Lapidus zeroes in on the personalities of all his characters with intelligence and aplomb, and so the book gives us access to feelings that normally lie outside our common experience. Because of this, the book is thematically rich.

It is also stylistically interesting. Lapidus uses a lot of very short sentences, almost scraps of Modernist poetry, to convey his message. This may be a sign of the author's lack of confidence in his ability to create strong and purposeful prose, but it doesn't matter. The language is also highly demotic and speech-based; the reader inhabits the characters' thoughts for much of the book, which lends an added genuineness to the author's style.

I found this book extraordinarily compelling and thought that it stands a notch above other Nordic crime novels that I have read, apart from the brilliant Millennium Trilogy of Stieg Larsson, which still sits in a class entirely of its own, in my mind. What Lapidus, the lawyer-turned-novelist, has achieved is to generate in this book a striking depth of conception and an originality of plot and character that makes Easy Money a real page-turner. I can't recommend this book too highly.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Literature as a metaphor for the dynamics of the public sphere

The critic and the journalist have one aim, to make things plain, but regardless we do not love them. The critic might be a bit up-himself or -herself whereas the novelist becomes an idol to be admired, pursued (at literary festivals, at book signings, by biographers), feted, and materially rewarded. Often, the one person might fill all three roles: critic, novelist, journalist. In Australia it seems as though every journalist comes out with his or her own novel at some point in time. And novels might perform the same critical purpose as journalism: to bring attention to a perceived problem and inspire a willingness within society to make a major change. This was certainly the aim of Charles Dickens, who probably, after Jane Austen, is the most-beloved of novelists who have written in the English language. The picture that accompanies this post shows an 1870 caricature of Dickens published in a London magazine: there is the great writer surrounded, as though in thought bubbles, by the characters his faithful readers had loved so much. Coming from a background of material disadvantage, Dickens (1812 - 1870) saw many things that were wrong in his England. And strange as it may seem today, many of his novels came out initially in serialised form, a method that had precedents; 100 years earlier some of the novels by Samuel Richardson had also come out serially, in periodicals. In both cases, eager readers often were moved to make suggestions, as it were in some way to have an impact on the destiny of the novelistic characters, and to participate in the narrative.

For journalists, reader participation is a routine part of the practice of journalism today, as readers make comments on stories published on websites. But while these commenters are often as passionate as the readers of the novels of Richardson and Dickens, they are also often vicious and intemperate; journalists are not liked in the same way that novelists are. Nor are politicians, who often appear in the journalists' stories and fulfill specific roles in the daily narrative. The savagery of commenters works within the dynamics of this quotidian narrative like some sort of binding agent, one which is designed to fill the gap between the aspirations of public figures - who always have a specific agenda when they participate in the public sphere - and the needs of people in the community. Those heated comments are flung across the gap like ropes that are thrown in the heat of a moment of disaster, or like rescue lines that would ensure that a man overboard can be saved. Their aim is to bring the commenter closer to the people involved in the narrative: the journalist, the politician, the criminal. They are aspirational in the way they work, and they reflect an important reality in that the franchise is universal for adults in liberal democracies.

No, we do not love journalists as we do novelists, although most of the former are in the business of diffusing truth while novelists retail in lies or, perhaps, novelists lie in order to deal with larger truths. But while in the public sphere we often just succumb - despite having thrown a desperate line across the gap that separates us from the ship of state - in literature we succumb willingly.

The difference in the way these two forms of writing operate has something about it in the sense of a category error. In both cases we are dealing with mere words, but we grant leniency to the novelist that is unavailable to the journalist. For both kinds of writer temporal power is real, and the agents of that power are liable to critique. But we expect journalists to agree with us, whereas we allow novelists to make their own choices, and we merely critique how they write, and not what they write. Obversely, the matter of style is apparently unimportant in the case of journalists.

The notion of being drawn into the narrative is central, I believe, to how we respond in both cases. For novels, we willingly allow ourselves to be drawn into the narrative, and allow it to carry our thoughts along, to provoke them and stimulate them into activity. For journalism, we resist the attraction if the narrative clashes with our beliefs, and we then complain loudly, or else if we feel that it justifies our own biases we enthusiastically praise the writer. Simple economics shows that unbiased news is unpopular - in the US, MSNBC (liberal) and Fox (conservative) are thriving while CNN (more neutral) is having financial problems. And as social media diffuses the centre of gravity in publishing away from established mastheads, these outlets tend to become more clearly of the one camp or the other. The unspoken agreement is that people will follow the news within the orbit of their preferred ideology, so journalism becomes more like literature, and a place where we can willingly succumb to narratives that are presented to us.

In this new environment, the journalist who stands up and says, "No, I believe we need to have in-depth, unbiased and completely objective news," is like the literary critic who demands more from what functions as popular culture. He or she is part of the elite and, in Australia at least, this means that he or she is hardly going to make many friends. But his or her motivation is admirable: asking for narrative products that any individual in the community can consume without the danger of being left behind by the ship of state. It's a completely democratic aspiration on his or her part. It is also inclusive and equitable, since it desires to give notice to all of the direction the ship of state will take, so that the ones who are unfavourably situated can easily and in a timely manner take steps to ensure that they are not left behind.

But do we reward this critic of journalism? Actually, we ignore him or her. This is because we live in stories all the time, we live literature, as it were, and of course many stories contain drama. We tell ourselves stories as we walk down the street to make ourselves feel better in the face of some small temporal reverse. Stories are the place where we live, and because of this we seem happy to play out the drama of abandonment or that of revenge. We act to cast into the space that surrounds us lines thrown with energy and passion, and pretend that we want them to be seized by someone riding on the departing vessel.

Luckily, much of the drama is notional, a proxy for larger dramas that really do play out in many parts of the world; places where there is injustice of a kind that we have not seen for generations. Out of the corner of our eye we watch passively - most of us, anyway - as people in those countries try to catch up to our ship as it chugs along toward the ever-receding horizon. Meanwhile, on the decks, public actors shuffle the chairs about to compensate for demographic changes that are entirely outside their control.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Google Wallet could help the media to monetise news

With the animus that has long characterised the relationship between Google and News Corp it's hardly surprising that the first story about Google Wallet - a new, "three-clicks" payment facility to attach to Gmail - in The Australian, is negative.
AN Australian internet security expert has described Google's new 'three clicks' process for sending money by Gmail as "dangerous". 
Google this week announced that soon, Gmail users can send money to other users simply by clicking on a new "$" symbol to be added to a list of options at the base of the mail creation window. 
The user enters the amount, clicks a second time to verify the money attachment, and then clicks a third time to send the email.
This new feature inside Gmail means that Google is starting to move into the space currently occupied by PayPal - another IT industry giant, and the notable early-adopter for online money transactions. The sky's the limit because take-up of Gmail is so broad already. Here's what I had to say about monetisation last year when I wrote a blogpost about the future of news; it includes mention of Google:
The monetisation problem still remains. Readers balking at keeping track of multiple passwords will be a major barrier for news media companies. What’s needed is a micro-payment engine that lots of media companies across the board could deploy on their websites. The workflow has to be as simple as Fairfax’s website login design: click on the short URL in Twitter, click to pay ten cents or twenty cents – this would be a small screen that pops up and that would be delivered by the transaction provider – and read the story. No logging in, no fuss, no barrier. Google could provide this service, as the search engine company already provides services linked to the Gmail account of each user. Whether news media companies want to give more cash to Google, however, is another issue.
Indeed it is an issue, and that accounts for The Australian's largely negative angle on the new technology. Many will remember Robert Thomson, one of Rupert Murdoch's trusted lieutenants - then editor of The Wall Street Journal and now chief executive of the newly constituted News Corporation - attacking Google in 2009, calling the tech giant a "parasite":
Thomson said Google benefited from aggregating content from The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. 
"Google argues they drive traffic to sites, but the whole Google sensibility is inimical to traditional brand loyalty," he said. 
"Google encourages promiscuity -- and shamelessly so -- and therefore a significant proportion of their users don't necessarily associate that content with the creator. 
"Therefore revenue that should be associated with the creator is not garnered."
Info-tech types bristled when Thomson came out in this way against Google, but I tended to agree with the basic premise (the pungent language was not nice but probably useful as it helped to make the point strongly) and later I went on to write the 2012 blogpost that is linked to above. The issue of remuneration was important to me because - as a freelance journalist - the matter of fair recompense for media work performed was always a matter of intimate concern to me. Two months ago I also wrote a spoof about how social media companies could form an alliance with the news media companies to engineer a method for processing micropayments when users click on shortened links posted to their sites.

With Google Wallet on the scene, the time is ripe for thinking about how the search engine and media giant can help the news media to continue to thrive by promoting efficient and reasonable monetisation methods. A part of the problem is user attitudes, but we know from the figures here in Australia alone that given the opportunity people will subscribe to news websites. Numbers are up. They can go higher. It would be a good thing for Google to work in this way toward ensuring a healthy and viable news media; that's not evil.

Friday, 17 May 2013

What dreams are made of: Memories, anxieties and aspirations

I chose one of Francisco Goya's etchings for this post because the series it belongs to, The Disasters of War, which was a series that the artist made between 1810 and 1820, and which he did not publish, has inspired so much praise over the years; many will remember Australian writer Robert Hughes' book on Goya, for example. Goya also made an allegory, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, in 1797, some 10 years before the Peninsula War, which inspired the later series, began. It's possible that what Goya referred to in this clumsy allegory - a man, slumped asleep at a table, has a flock of bats and owls hovering over him; it's pure classical kitsch - was the carnage that occurred in France and Europe as a result of the French Revolution's spiraling out of control and turning into both a domestic bloodbath and a series of wars in foreign countries led by Napoleon Bonaparte, that brought devastation and misery to the people of Europe. Goya's allegory looks at the downside of radical changes in the polis. But it's worthwhile remembering that in England in the same year of 1797 Coleridge and Wordsworth published their seminal poetry collection, Lyrical Ballads - many people in England at the time said the book was monstrous - which looks at the upside of the realignment of the political settlement, a change that would serve to reform corrupt and superannuated regimes throughout Europe and lead to the establishment of a preferable model in those countries, in democracy.

Dreams are full of anxieties and aspirations, and they are often based on memories. At least mine are. Like one in which I am applying for a job with an employer who had refused to employ me decades earlier. Or that dream I sometimes have that contains images and anxieties rooted in my high school matriculation examination. Sometimes a recurring dream will contain an image so piercing - like the one where I kiss a girl in a garden, and the kiss suffuses me with the most pure and unadulterated joy - that it even becomes a memory, as though it had really happened.

Last night I had another of those anxiety-filled employer dreams. I was aiming to reapply for a position as a diplomat - just after graduating with my undergrad degree, in 1985, I actually did attend the first level of interviews for the diplomatic service, and was turned down - and it turned out that there was someone working in IT with the department who I'd worked with previously in another job. In the dream, I see him walking towards me, going in the direction of a staircase, and I call out his name, hoping that he can inform my prospective employer that we had worked together before, but he either doesn't hear me or else he ignores me. In any case he walks past me, climbs the stairs, and disappears. Frustrations like this come to me often in dreams about places I have worked at in the real past. And for some reason I keep wanting to go back and work again with the same employers whose employ I had quit at different times. In another dream, there was a technology company where I had worked, and there was an executive I knew. For some reason there were huge photocopying machines and he was standing behind one of these monstrosities smiling and talking to me, but I did not get the job again.

And while some dreams - like my kissing the girl in the garden - are so strong that they become memories, at other times there are real memories that appear to be like dreams, like the time I fell in love with a man at a party in Bondi. At the time I was living in the inner-Sydney suburb of Newtown in a share-house. As happens when you are young and vigorous you give little thought to how you'll get home from these suburban bashes, and in this case I do not remember how this happened at all. But I do remember arriving home to find a flatmate and his girlfriend - who did not live in the house - sitting in the kitchen at the kitchen table. I sat down and we talked for hours and laughed; I was so happy. But I never contacted that man again, and the memory of the encounter is therefore like a dream.

Possibly women dream of leaning against the chest of a man, talking through the hours and feeling the vibrations of his utterances thrum through his chest and into yours. Like I did, they can feel the strength and the warmth, feel the laughter vibrate in their own bodies. Did I really stand with him, talking, as the stars edged their way through the darkness and the waves rolled incessantly over the shallows to break on the beach? Did we talk about school friends - though he went to a different school, we knew some of the same people - and what they had done? Did we kiss passionately and did I feel the rough stubble of his cheeks against my skin? I could swear that these things really happened. I could, if I wanted, get in touch tomorrow with my old flatmate and ask him, "Do you remember that night in Alice Street when I came home late and we stayed up talking for hours, and laughed so much?". 

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Remote scent dispensing earns the sweet smell of success

This year's 3D Con was held in Maputo, Mozambique, and drew record crowds from all continents, people looking to learn the latest in remote materials and product delivery. The 2084 meet is the 35th 3D Con and the second to be held in Africa, where many of the base materials for the technology are sourced. Columnist and tech maven Jacker Preeble caught up with Glaze Bryant, from 3D delivery leader RemForth, to talk about how the industry is developing in our connected world.

Last year RemForth launched a new line of remote delivery platforms, the Olfa 3900 DX series. How has the product been received in the market to this point in time, Glaze?

Sure, Jacker. We brought out the Olfa 3900 series to leverage on our Periodic Cartridge technology. The system had worked fairly well in the earlier lines, the 2500 and 2600b series, but we had some problems with differentiation, materials handling and also with data interpretation. On this last issue, especially, the 3900 series is light years ahead of the earlier lines in terms of reproducibility, tonality and sensitivity. There were complaints from some customers who used the earlier models that the smells they were getting were too "blocky" and did not always match with what other people were saying about specific data matrices. For example, while some people found chapter two of The Great Gatsby to be refreshing and fun, others complained that it was almost identical to something from Faulkner. We have worked hard to improve the performance of our smell generators.

But the materials handling function is pretty important too, right?

Yes, of course. Gold is solid at room temperature, for example, and we need to heat it inside the device to a pretty high temperature so it'll work in the preparation phase all the way to the nozzle and the evaporation bowl. The systems behind the Periodic Cartridge are now very sophisticated; but we're doing things that, even three years ago, would have been considered impossible. And we have partnered with new people, especially in universities, to make sure the literature criticism algorithms - and the chemistry - work better than ever.

You're getting a lot of new ideas from local people with culture skills as well, I understand?

This is really an exciting phase of the business, and it's something that we're getting from sites such as Scenterest. These are ditigised cultural mash-ups, often invented by regular people out in the community. It's pretty interesting for everyone, frankly, and we can now add data modules to the 3900 series that will allow anyone to download '.SCT' files from any website that lets you enjoy them. There are even interpretation websites that let you convert text files into .SCT files, which can then easily be uploaded to the web and shared, or just imported into your own Olfa 3900 DX.

What sort of mash-ups are we seeing? What are the most popular?

In terms of innovative scent delivery, there are some pretty unusual data files coming out of the networked community. We've got one item, which is Zizek on Habermas on Dickens, that is causing quite a sensation among some groups of people globally. While you might think that this kind of combination of ideas and literary approaches might be quite dry and uninteresting, people are telling us that they get a real buzz out of them. And the perfume companies are starting to take notice. Those individuals who develop that data are even securing licensing agreements with the big luxury brands that make perfumes. For our part, we have a number of bloggers who have made unique discoveries and we market their smells within our standard lines.

I think it's really interesting that this industry has developed in the way it has. What are the precedents?

Well, there's the classic Stanislav Lem dystopia where scents are used for crowd control, but that was written 100 years ago. What we're seeing now is something that scientists have been saying since the turn of the century: that laughter and pleasure are good for you, good for your health, they allow you to work better, more efficiently. So we market our products to companies as something that will lift productivity and help people really engage with their work.

Now that you've nailed the text-to-scent pathway, what is in store in future from RemForth?

I would hesitate to say that we've "nailed it", but we're happier with our products now in a way that we weren't, say, five years ago. We still have a way to go with market penetration, reducing unit costs, and with development of cheaper base materials that can help to bring down the operational cost of these devices. We know that people are asking for this. Mercedes started using scent dispensing in its high-end cars a long time ago but we have built on that to enable people to carry their output devices wherever they are. We want to do more on price, and we want to expand the range of niche areas we target, with unique products that literally anyone can enjoy.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

How Natural Born Killers inspired Titanic

Three years before this ...


There was this ...


The larrikin is a supine toady who doffs his cap at the capitalist

A column yesterday on the Fairfax Daily Life website by a law lecturer at the University of New South Wales has been getting a fair bit of play on social media. Titled 'Why Australia hates thinkers', the column by Alecia Simmonds imaginatively converts a personal gripe - the Gillard government is cutting funding to universities in order to pay for the Gonski secondary-school reforms - into a generalised lament about the lowly status of academics and other thinkers in Australia. The column hit a nerve for a lot of people I know online, and I was impressed by the ambition evident in the piece, and how it seeks to move from the particular to the general. This is part of what it says:
Perhaps there's a link between the myth of Australian egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. Australian history is popularly told as a story of democracy, equality and classlessness that broke from England's stuffy, poncy, aristocratic elitism. We're a place where hard yakka, not birth, will earn you success and by hard yakka we don't mean intellectual labour. Although, of course, equality is a great goal, we've interpreted it to mean cultural conformity rather than a redistribution of wealth and power. The lowest common denominator exerts a tyrannical sway and tall poppies are lopped with blood-soaked scythes.
I think this is a very sophisticated approach to an extremely complex problem and it's something that I've attempted to tackle myself, most recently in a blogpost about why Australian writing was so conventional before Patrick White emerged, writing the kind of novels that were designed to drag Australia's middle class kicking and screaming into the age of Modernism.
[W]hile Australia has always been a metropolitan culture the pioneer values that were struck into cultural coin in the bush carried over into use in the suburbs of the big urban agglomerations.
The bush ethos of sharing in order to survive meant that cultural and intellectual innovation was a threat to the social cohesion that was so important for the good of the - often tiny - communities that dotted the usually unfriendly landscape. Without trust there was no community. And trust is especially important in frontier societies where many services that urban dwellers take for granted are absent. People shift for themselves, but the obverse to this admirable quality is distrust of anything that threatens social cohesion. The trouble is that the bush ethos survived time and endured despite growing populations in the urban centres, where it was adopted by the proletariat who found that those with economic power approved of this cultural conservatism.

Australia has no respect for intellectuals because the proletariat is always keen to doff its cap at the capitalist, and do the howling-down on his or her behalf. The larrikin is not anti-establishment, but rather the broad bulwark of the establishment. There is an unwritten pact between capital and the proletariat in Australia. They bolster each others' egos, and they enjoy the same pastimes, including sport, drink and gambling. These are activities that require no imagination to enjoy, and so they are perfect for a society where an uncritical, hedonistic attitude toward recreation - creating community - is prized.

Against the larrikin, that supine toady, stand a small coterie of bohemians, academics, and other thinkers, most of whom, including Greer, Keane, Humphries, Hughes, Sharp, Carey, and James, decamp overseas at the earliest opportunity because Australia, culturally, is often a wasteland. And when we celebrate a performer it's because they flatter us with circuses and pop songs, comedy and musicals; buffoonery included as a default. Think of Tim Minchin, an intelligent Australian songwriter, who gussies himself up with face paint and thumps along to his tunes on a big piano, like some two-bit amusement-arcade impresario. Barry Humphries? An educated man who chose to flatter middle Australia - for decades - by holding a mirror up to them to show a benevolent, common-as-mud Malaprop.

The case of Martin Sharp is also instructive (his Ginger's last stand, Nimrod, 1975, is the pic for this post). Sharp was an attractive and creative young man in 1960s Australia who decamped to London - as so many did - to seek his destiny. There he worked with musicians and other artists to create new kinds of images suitable for the pop scene thriving in postwar England (the erstwhile English historian Tony Judt brilliantly describes this demographically-youthful world characterised by rising wealth, peace and consumerism in his 2005 book Postwar).

When Sharp returned to Australia he brought with him his fascination with the performer Tiny Tim and buttressed the aesthetic choice by treating Australian cultural icons such as Ginger Meggs in the same way as he had painted the famous ukelele player. Luna Park, in Sydney, is nothing if not proletarian, and Sharp extended his reach by appropriating it, as well, and turning it to use in his larrikin-friendly art. Likewise, think of Norman Lindsay, that extraordinary polymath - he wrote novels as well as made watercolours - and his utterly conventional classicised concoctions with their endless wastes of firm, female flesh. Paintings anyone could enjoy, and the antithesis of intellectual. Or think of C.J. Dennis and his sentimental bloke, a rough-as-guts footpath philosopher struggling with confused feelings for his sheila, upon whom he dotes.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Reading, religion and radicalism; On my grandfather Harry Dean

What's striking for me in this photograph of my grandfather John Henry "Harry" Dean is the contrast between the setting - a memorial in part of Melbourne's metropolitan parkland, a weekend outing possibly with friends, or with his wife-to-be - and what looks like a business suit, but which would merely have been de-rigueur garb for social occasions in the 1920s, when the shot was snapped. I don't think he was a striking man, though; he married, in 1926, four years after his father, a schoolteacher, died, a local beauty, Beatrice Kewish, whose father was a journalist. There was something fitting in her name; I have a book of Harry's, Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, which is inscribed in the year of his wedding. Certainly Harry would also have read Dante's early sonnets. A thinker and a reader, Harry met Bea through the Presbyterian Church, where they both attended services regularly. My mother once told me that Harry changed allegiances and became a practicing Communist in 1941 when Russia joined the Allies in WWII, but it appears that the conversion occurred earlier. He was clearly there from the 1930s, and would say that "Socialism was living Christianity".

A logical man, he was also highly empathetic, and took others' experiences as seriously as his own. Harry's father made the decision about Harry's career, so because he had done well in chemistry at secondary school Harry went on to study pharmacy, and became a pharmacist. My mother tells me that Harry would readily distribute contraceptive pills to those who needed them, and he also had the habit of giving his money away to those in need. Harry even patented a dispensing device for pills that could have been used for those contraceptives in his pharmacy in suburban Melbourne.

There are a lot of things that I don't know about the bookish, serious, and earnest Harry Dean. Critically, he died, of cancer, in 1954, immediately before his daughter, my mother, married my father. Even more critically, he specified in his Will that his book collection - which comprised some 2000 volumes - was to go to the Party, and this, unfortunately for me - although my own bookishness didn't really start to become apparent until about 1981, when I left a residential college of the university and moved to nearby Glebe to live in an apartment where I had enough space to make a library - is what happened. Only a few stray volumes have gravitated to me as a result of the death of Harry's son, my uncle, several years ago.

There are Henry Lawson story anthologies with faded green hard covers. There is a quite battered 1906 edition of Steele Rudd's Back At Our Selection, which is part of one of those classic Australian series of comic novels that have worked on domestic popular culture so strongly over the years. There is On the Choice of A Profession, a tiny 1916 chapbook with something like builder's plaster smeared over the boards used to bind it, by Robert Louis Stevenson. There is a cheap, 1927 edition of Twilight of the Gods, by Richard Garnett, the kind of book you can imagine a serious young Australian man reading to improve his mind and enrich his character, especially someone who might be questioning the relevance of his native church. This also applies to the 1924 edition of George Frazer's The Golden Bough - the first edition came out in 1922 - which is in pretty good condition and has a fine leaf-design on the cover, but also a few spots from moisture damage. Harry could not have known, when he bought such books, that 80 years later - more than two generations - his grandson, who he never met, would be coveting books he had bought in the prime of his manhood.

The stamp Harry used to mark his ownership of books is a plain, round-cornered oblong with merely 'J. H. Dean' located prominently in it. Some of these books carry the mark on the frontispiece. My mother did not carry much of Harry's learning about society and culture to me; she was more interested in the theatre in her youth, although it was the New Theatre, a left-leaning company, that engaged her. So I have dreamed of Harry's complete book collection many times in the past decade, since I learned about it, and I imagine that its contents have been thoroughly redistributed in the period separating his death and the present time. But apart from a few stray remnants of the collection, something of Harry's seriousness and his curiosity have been bequeathed to me, modified perhaps by an analogous idealism that belonged to my father.

My father might have been attracted to Harry's daughter partly due to the fact that Harry's brother, older than him by a number of years, was a judge. Arthur, who had fought in WWI, became a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court, in 1949. Harry's split from the church was problematic for Arthur. "If he said something was right, it was right," says my mother of Harry. But Arthur didn't think so and, says one of Arthur's children, Harry's involvement with the Communist Party caused friction in the family. Anything approaching Communism was viewed with great suspicion in the 30s and 40s and 50s. Harry's involvement with Communism was rooted in a critical approach to politics, to religion, and to commerce, and he remained committed to the cause until his death.

Harry's sister Madge, seven years younger, would also become a schoolteacher, as her father had been, and was part of the British and Commonwealth occupation force in Japan after WWII. She travelled widely thereafter and finished up in New Zealand, living with her Danish-born husband. But that's another story.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Performance art project offers insights into how women experience sex

You run the risk of looking creepy writing about videos in which a number of women orgasm on-camera. But there's something oddly asexual and pristine about the videos, partly because the premise is contrived: the women are asked to bring along a book to the video session, which they read from aloud while being sexually stimulated below the table with a vibrator. This artificial set-up points obliquely to those scenes in literature where two people do sex in public - I even seem to recall a scene in one book where a woman masturbates in company, but where it was I can't for the moment remember - and this artificiality also accounts for the smiles and laughter from the women being videoed here. Such expressions of positive affect highlight the logical tension that inheres in a situation where a private act is performed in public. But regardless, the display that is produced is at odds with what normally passes for lived exhibitions of sexual pleasure, which are routinely found in two places: in pornography, and in the cinema. These unscripted displays are at odds with them because they seem more genuine, unaffected, and spontaneous.

There are five women videoed on the linked page, and the videos range in length from just over four minutes (Stormy) to almost 12 minutes (Alicia). Apart from the smiles and laughter, which is a common feature of the responses of all of the women to the scenario, the arrival of the climax renders any other action impossible in all cases. The book or digital reading device is put down, the hands tense, and the mouth emits sounds as the body is convulsed by internal forces beyond rational control. Beyond this, however, each woman has different ways of responding to the manipulation of their vulvas. Some of the women contain the response for longer, and there are different ways of exhibiting it; one woman grips the edge of the table, for example, and one women repeatedly brings her hand to her mouth, as though to hide an inappropriate remark.

In the Salon interview that is linked from the page Clayton Cubitt, the artist who made the videos, is asked whether they might be used by men (or, presumably, women) during masturbation. This question holds within it a number of links to other strands of thought. The most obvious of these has to do with the wide availability of exploitative erotic material that is available on the internet. I wonder how preferable it is to show in a frank and candid manner how women experience an orgasm that is real, and not faked, compared to the ways that women's bodies are used in pornographic videos in order to titillate the men (and women) who watch them. In the videos by Cubitt the focus of attention is the woman - her reproductive organs, her response to sexual stimulation, and the speed with which she transits from a default state of physical containment to an uncontrolled state approaching and reaching the point of climax - whereas in pornography the woman is a mechanism that is manipulated by a script, by directorial advice, and by the conventions of the form, for the sole purpose of enabling the viewer to achieve orgasm.

For this reason alone it seemed to me unfortunate that the Salon interviewer, in her interview with Cubitt, introduced a moralising tone, as though the videos' status as art placed them in a different class from pornography. Surely it is better to appraise both types of production as mere cultural objects, and to draw conclusions in regard to the use that is being made of the people shown, and for what purpose. The censure inherent in the interviewer's masturbation question also implied, for me, a lack of imagination, an unwillingness to step outside common attitudes toward live displays of the sexual response in women. As though it is somehow improper to openly show, and discuss, how women respond to sex.

One thing is certain, though: the videos are unconventional. Journalists will always remark on something if it is unconventional because they usually check their imaginations at the door when they begin work, in order to assume the attitude of the person they believe is going to read the article they write. While displays of the female sexual response are commonplace within popular culture - even leaving aside overt pornography - it is usually within the anodyne confines of the cinema that they appear. And within the constraints of that form the female sexual response has its own conventions, some of which have commonalities with the responses shown in these videos. What is lacking in the cinema, however, is the sense of delight that the women in Cubitt's videos display. In the cinema, sexual abandon often resembles violence - the woman is pushed to a wall, thrown on a bed, and covered by the man's body - whereas in real life things usually play out in completely different ways.

Some people might react with disapproval to Cubitt's videos, seeing the female response to vulval stimulation as obscene, but given the strong demand for both erotica and dramatisations of sex I suggest that what might be objectionable in Cubitt's videos is the way they take the female sexual response out of a dominant and distorting frame, and place it within another, to produce a cultural object that is novel, surprising, and charmingly direct.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Book review: The Life And Death of Democracy, John Keane (2009)

It's really hard to know where to start with this 958-page goliath but perhaps I should start by saying that so far I've only read to page 311. And this is no indictment of the book's quality, its writing, or its pace or structure; it's a really good read. The reason I stopped reading it a few weeks ago, and why it has sat desultorily unopened since then on the floor next to my bed is that there's just so much interesting stuff in it. I stopped not because I was bored but because I had reached a cognitive threshold and needed to blog about it in order to register and refine and understand my own thoughts about it, before going on with it.

Keane himself is an interesting specimen, one of those tousle-headed expat Australians who is something of an eminence gris, but unfortunately for the rest of us he is not often in the media. No doubt his researches and his desire to write keep him busy elsewhere, but I'd like to see more of him on the small screen as a tonic to general ignorance. It's general ignorance that makes liberals squirm when conservative politicians put out a public call for us to spend more time in school learning about the contribution of Christianity to Western institutions, for example, including the institution of representative democracy. In fact, if you read this book, you'll learn that Christianity did indeed have a lot to do with how democracy developed over the centuries. But liberals in the community don't know that and only see politicians trying to buttress the values that underpin their political parties, and trying to foster support for those values - which are often retrograde and, unlike the way Keane handles his material, uncritically promoted - within the broader community. And as far as it goes the liberals are right: there are many special interest groups and potted loons in the community that just want to see their own narrow agendas given a bit of support in the face of the inexorable onward press of the Enlightenment.

Speaking of tonics, page 311 in the book takes you up to the years around 1776, when the US Constitution was written. But the story of democracy starts about 3000 years earlier. Novel, right? We get a lot of chest-beating from Americans, an ugly nationalistic exceptionalism that is encouraged by senior politicians there who are always eager to lift the value of their personal brands by telling their constituents how special they are. On the far reaches of the US political spectrum you get Tea Party patriots stomping down the street dressed as Minutemen, banging on drums and tooting on tin whistles. These kinds of public display are as damaging to the US in terms of community support as is the stance of the Chinese government vis-a-vis democracy, which also tends to foment distrust in communities overseas. Even loyal friends such as the average Australian gets tired of hearing Americans bang on. And China's refusal to engage with its countrymen on the matter of representative government leads to an unending stream of bad publicity in the form of negative stories in the Western media; the Chinese government responds by monopolising the media in its own country, and produces news websites that no Chinese reads because they know it's just propaganda. In terms of the US, nationalistic exceptionalism leads to distrust among the members of certain communities, and has contributed to the escalation, since the late 1990s, of terror attacks on American targets throughout the world. Uncritical and chauvinistic attitudes toward the matter of government damage everyone. Keane's books is therefore a must-read.

It's also a lot of fun. Keane uses a muscular, pungent, demotic language that is knowing and wry. He caters to the average reader by battening onto his or her standard cognates, and running the bigger story, complete with all its important details, like a weaver who shuttles the weft across the warp to fashion her cloth.

So, for example, everyone knows that the ancient Athenians kept slaves. Keane addresses this commonly-known fact and makes sure that he keeps one eye on that area of the story while talking more broadly about how democracy functioned in Greece in the few hundred years BC that democracy survived there. But this is not where Keane starts; the democratic impulse began, he tells us, a couple of thousand years earlier, in Mesopotamia, among the tribe of local gods the people living in the region consulted during their everyday lives. And Athens wasn't the first polity to use democracy for government; many other cities at the same time did, and even other communities used it even earlier, a fact that can be seen by tracing back the use of certain words in different places, words cognate with 'demos', the people.

Democracy developed in fits and starts often for reasons completely distinct from such notions as equity of access, individual human rights, or the idea that all people are created equal under God. But those precepts did also work to determine how things came to be. For example, from page 231 in the book:
The case of covenants in Scotland demonstrated yet again, within the history of democracy, that the raw, blind, passionate conviction that God is the source of all things human could spark the level-headed demand of mortals to rein in earthly rulers who saw themselves as divine. We have seen already that some basic institutions of both assembly democracy and representative government were twins of the belief in the power of transcendent forces. Mesopotamian assemblies took their cue from Anu and Enlil and other gods and goddesses; Greek democracies were nourished by the belief that the deities watched over them carefully; while Muslim institutions - the mosque, the endowment societies, economic partnerships - were self-evidently manifestations of a loving and benevolent God. Early Christians followed suit. In the name of God, they popularised the practice of responsibly holding office for limited terms. They had a hand in cultivating such things as the reliance on councils of representatives, the practice of petitioning, and the insistence that states run by monarchs need to be kept constantly on their toes - held publicly accountable for their actions - by their subjects.
It sounds simple when Keane tells these stories like this, but it has to be remembered that there are tens of thousands of hours of work sitting behind the writer's fluid verbal output. Oh, that Keane could be walked out from time to time, like Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the cinema scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, to put the pollies and the culture warriors - and the estranged liberal intelligentsia - right, when talk starts up in the commentary pages of the newspapers about teaching Australian children about the contribution of religion to the institution of representative government. If the discussion could contain these facts, and these stories, I think that everyone would just relax, sit back, and feel a bit happier and less ensieged.

But this is how a public intellectual like Keane can add value to debates, and so for my part I can only humbly recommend his large, heavy, and - basically - knowing book to readers everywhere. The quality of the paper is not that great but the quality of the prose is exceptional; there were a couple of places where the author ran ahead of me, but in a work this size that's to be expected.